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November 29, 2017

Lee Ming-che May Not Have Been Charged under Foreign NGO Law—But His Case Could Still Have a Chilling Effect

On November 28, Taiwanese NGO activist Lee Ming-che was sentenced to five years in prison for “subverting state power.” A mainland Chinese citizen, Peng Yuhua, whom Lee’s family says they had not heard of before the trial, was tried with him and sentenced to seven years for the same crime. This follows Lee’s September trial in Hunan province, webcast live, during which he confessed to the charges and claimed he was misled by biased Western media reports about China. Part of the evidence against Lee included social media postings on WeChat, Facebook, and QQ that he wrote while in Taiwan. His case shows that even non-People’s Republic of China citizens can be prosecuted in mainland courts for their online activity—even when that activity took place outside the mainland.

At the time of Lee’s trial, a number of articles framed Lee’s detention as directly related to the Foreign NGO Law, despite the law’s never having been invoked during his prosecution. (Of course, in any such process, the formal charges may not offer a complete description of public security officials’ motivations for detaining Lee. But the charges that they choose to apply are still relevant.) It may well be that Lee’s case has had a chilling effect on the Taiwanese NGO community seeking to work in China, particularly with regard to self-censorship. It is difficult to know how the case has or has not affected Taiwanese NGOs’ registration in China, because we do not have accurate data about how many Taiwanese groups were working in the mainland prior to the implementation of the Foreign NGO Law. According to Ministry of Public Security data, nine NGOs from Taiwan have registered a representative office in China under the new law as of November 27, eight of which were registered after Lee was detained.

Over the course of Lee’s detention, media coverage and opinion seems to have coalesced around the notion that this case is more related to Lee’s “subversive” activities rather than his NGO status per se. But there are a number of factors about Lee’s case that Chinese authorities might have zeroed in on as threatening: his Taiwanese identity, his affiliation with Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party, his status as an NGO employee, his online discussions with Chinese activists, or his provision of banned books to people on the mainland. Official opacity in these cases means that we do not know how each of these factors interacted in the determination of the police and the prosecutors to generate the charges against him.

Jerry Cohen and Yu-Jie Chen’s September assessment in the South China Morning Post clearly drew out the nuances of Lee’s case, describing it first as an issue of Taiwanese individuals promoting democracy and then secondarily as a warning to foreign citizens working in China: “. . . the case has sent a loud and clear warning that Taiwanese will be in danger if they cooperate in “subverting” the Chinese government by promoting freedoms and democracy, a lifestyle that they take for granted. And not only Taiwanese. Beijing’s new law regulating foreign NGO activities can also be applied to prosecute people from other countries.”

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Jessica Batke is a ChinaFile Senior Editor. She is an expert on China’s domestic political and social affairs, having served as the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research Analyst for...